Patterns In Writing II: Plot Structure

In this series, we’re looking at patterns in writing. These patterns include dramatic structure, themes, character archetypes, and conflict.

Recall that this unit is framed with the generalization that “structure increases creativity.”

In this unit, we’ll be using a Frayer Model-style concept attainment with definitions, essential characteristics, and examples/non-examples to define each act of the plot.

My goal with these lessons is to equip my students with a sophisticated set of tools to write with. Writing programs tend to start and end with setting, character, and plot. By showing my gifted students the authentic tools of an author, they have a higher level to aim for in their writing.

Plus, it’s a blast reading your students stories as they integrate sophisticate plots, themes, conflict, and character archetypes.


“Students will identify the pattern of a five-act plot structure in story-telling using a variety of films, novels, and short stories.”


Refer to the unit’s generalization “structure increases creativity.” Often, authors use an existing structure to organize their plot.

I might also mention that identifying patterns in plot structure goes back to 335 BC with Aristotle’s Poetics


People such as Aristotle noticed that great stories (whether by the Greeks, Shakespeare, or Pixar) follow a common pattern. They each contain these five acts:

  • Exposition
  • Rising action
  • Climax
  • Falling action or resolution
  • Dénouemont

Using these terms, we’re going to explore the plot of Finding Nemo.

1. Introduce language of the discipline “exposition”

Definition: In the exposition, the reader meets the protagonist and sees life before the conflict starts.

Essential Characteristics of the exposition:

  • Introduces protagonists character traits
  • Introduces general setting
  • Main plot has not started.

Ask students to think from the point of view of the screenwriter: “How did the writer use the exposition to show the characters’ traits?”

Possible examples:

  • Marlin’s cautious nature is shown when he goes in and out of the home indefinitely, checking for danger.
  • Nemo’s ‘lucky fin’ is revealed, showing that he was physically affected by the baraccuda attack.
  • We also see that Nemo is a regular kid, annoyed by his father’s worrying.
  • Marlin is socially awkward, revealed through his terribly unfunny joke.


  • The real conflict does not begin in the exposition.
  • Nemo’s capture and Marlin’s attempts to find him are not part of the exposition.

Explain that the real plot hasn’t started yet. No one is trying to “find Nemo.” The conflict begins with an event known as the “inciting incident.”

2. Introduce “inciting incident” and “rising action”

In Finding Nemo, the conflict truly begins when Nemo is taken by the divers. This is known as the inciting incident. It is the origin of the next act, the rising action.

Definition: The rising action is the series of adventures the characters go on. Each adventure slowly takes them towards the climax. Quality stories get increasingly suspenseful and tense as the climax approaches. The rising action begins with an event known as the “inciting incident.”

Essential Characteristics

  • Several mini-adventures within the main plot
  • Longest act of the story
  • Builds tension, excitement, and suspense over time

Examples of rising action from Finding Nemo:

  • Inciting incident: Nemo is taken by the divers!
  • Marlin encounters the sharks.
  • Marlin goes through the jellyfish.
  • Nemo gains the friendship of the aquarium fish.
  • Nemo attempts to escape the aquarium.

3. Introduce language of the discipline “climax”

Definition: The climax is the peak of the action. It could be a huge battle or an exciting action scene.

Essential Characteristics:

  • Most intense, exciting moment of the story.
  • Storylines come together

Example from Finding Nemo: The search for Nemo intersects with Nemo’s own adventures in the dentist’s office. The climax continues into the ocean, reaching its peak when Nemo rescues the fish trapped in a net.

4. Introduce “Falling Action”

Can you imagine if the movie simply ended in the middle of all the excitement of the climax? We would never know how the big battle turned out or if the heroes were all safe.

Definition: The falling action is a short but vital part of the story that resolves the climax.

Essential Characteristics:

  • Shows the outcome of the climax
  • Tells the reader the status of the main characters

Example: In Finding Nemo, this is when Nemo saves Dorie and Marlin learns to trust his son.

Non-Examples: The falling action should not leave the reader confused.

5. Introduce the dénouement

Now I ask my students to think about the final part of the movie Finding Nemo. We see Nemo and Marlin back in the same situation as the beginning of the movie. They are back at the reef and Nemo is preparing to go to school. Only this time, there are major differences from the exposition. If we watch the clip, I would ask my students to note some of the differences:

Definition The dénouement reveals how the charaacters have “changed over time.”

Essential characteristics:

  • The characters are back in a similar setting as the exposition
  • The protagonist behaves differently, showing effect of the story’s conflict
  • A great dénouement shows how the characters have changed.

In Finding Nemo, the dénouement shows:

  • Marlin finally tells his whole joke.
  • Marlin is no longer over protective of his son.
  • Nemo is confident and happy.

Poor dénouements look like: :

  • “And they lived happily ever after.”
  • “And he never made the same mistake again.”

Guided Practice

Dramatic Structure Graphic Organizer

Break students into groups of four to participate in a practice session of identifying the plot elements of popular stories. I give a selection of choices such as: The Lion King, Harry Potter, Star Wars, etc.

I’m fine when groups use a story not on the list too. Each group should work with a different story. Groups analyze their story’s dramatic structure using a Freytag Triangle worksheet (pdf) and then present their work. These samples will go up as reminders and references.

Independent Practice

Students will develop their own Freytag Triangle (pdf) based around an idea for an original story (perhaps one they’ve created as part of this unit).


Refer back to the unit’s theme: “Structure increases creativity.” Note the wide variety of excellent, creative stories that use this plot structure. Preview that students will be creating their own stories based around this pattern.